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Democratic legislators say they've settled their differences on net neutrality in California, advancing bills that, if passed, would create the most far-reaching internet regulation in the country.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net-neutrality protections that ensured internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T give consumers and partners equal access to the web. It jettisoned those rules as of June, saying they were unnecessary and “heavy-handed” market interference. Critics characterize this as a play by the Trump administration to undermine consumer safeguards.

California—if this bill were to become law—would restore the old nationwide net neutrality regulations within the state.

“The Internet wasn't broken in 2015, when the previous FCC imposed 1930s-era regulations on Internet service providers. And ironically, these regulations made things worse by limiting investment in high-speed networks and slowing broadband deployment,” said the FCC.

Last month, net-neutrality bill author Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said his bill was “gutted” in a committee hearing chaired by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat. Santiago’s committee elbowed through—without time for comment—amendments stripping out key prohibitions, including one designed to block internet providers from charging its customers access fees, and another intended to bar them from creating “zero-rating” services to steer consumers away from competitor content.

In response, Wiener had said he would withdraw the “hijacked” bill if those key protections from the FCC’s regulation were not restored.

After weeks of negotiation along with Los Angeles Democratic Sen. Kevin de Léon, author of a related net neutrality bill in the Senate, and Alameda Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a co-author of Wiener’s bill, announced Thursday, July 5, that they had reached a deal to advance bills they say provide the same protections for Californians that the FCC temporarily provided to all Americans.

“We know that the federal government is not going to fix things in the foreseeable future,” Wiener said.

Without such regulations in place, internet providers would be free to speed up or slow down services like calls or video streaming, based on who pays for “fast lane” access. Advocates say these practices would hurt small businesses and consumers who cannot afford more expensive service. For consumers, that could mean higher prices and fewer choices.

The bills by Wiener and de Léon would ban internet companies from charging businesses access fees in order to reach its online customers.

They also prohibit “zero-rating” services, which allow internet providers to charge consumers for data when accessing competitors’ content, and interference and manipulation at the point where data enters the network. Without that protection, an internet provider could, for instance, slow down competing video applications to give itself a competitive advantage.

“Generally speaking, the bill is great. They are right that it’s the strongest protection in the country … with the three provisions back,” said Ryan Singel, media and strategy fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society.

He added that grassroots organizations and consumers rallying for net-neutrality regulation got legislators to listen. The gutting of Wiener’s bill sparked thousands of calls to legislators, a flood of social media comments and $14,000 in crowdfunding to install a billboard in Santiago’s district.

“Basically, we won. Literally, this is what a grassroots effort looks like. When the internet is mad at you, it’s really loud and really hard to deal with. We had three things we wanted to defend, and we got all of them back,” Singel said.

Democrats know a battle is coming, but are hopeful the bills—assuming they win approval of the full Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature—will stand up to a legal challenge. Republican leaders, however, have warned from the beginning that such regulation will face litigation from internet companies.

“To be clear, we are not out of the woods … This is going to be a fight,” Wiener acknowledged.

The internet giants have denied that they slow down or throttle internet traffic and violate other net neutrality rules. In an open letter earlier this year, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said: “We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate or degrade network performance based on content. Period.”

These providers also argue that net neutrality regulation will drive up their costs to operate in the state. They say rural areas are more expensive to provide service in, and this regulation would discourage expanding broadband service there.

The Internet Association, an organization representing tech companies like Airbnb and Uber, found broadband business did not slow down after the FCC first adopted net-neutrality regulations three years ago. Fixed broadband subscriptions increased 3.5 percent, and wireless broadband subscriptions increased 10 percent from June 2015 to June 2016.

Net-neutrality supporters, including labor groups and technology companies like Amazon and Twitter, say a fair and protected web is crucial for workers and businesses relying on open communication and access to do their jobs. More than 20 states have recently introduced bills meant to reinstate the federal net neutrality protections. Washington and Oregon have already passed legislation.

“California is the world’s fifth largest economy and home to the globe’s most important tech companies,” said Robert Cruickshank, campaigns director of Demand Progress, an internet-activism organization based in Washington, D.C. “Passage of this bill will also give huge new momentum to the effort to get the U.S. House of Representatives to follow the U.S. Senate and restore the net neutrality protections the FCC gutted last winter.”

The bills have passed the Senate and have until Aug. 31 to pass the Assembly and move to the governor for a signature.

“What happens now is good old-fashioned politics—just securing the votes. No more negotiating,” said de Léon.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

With just a week left until the federal government intends to roll back net neutrality, California’s Senate has stepped into the void by advancing a bill that aims to maintain equal internet access for all its citizens.

This fight over who pays for the internet and how it should be regulated now shifts to the Assembly, and if it passes there, on to Gov. Jerry Brown. If he were so sign it, the state would have the strictest net-neutrality rules in the nation—but could well face a court challenge from internet service providers who contend the state is overstepping its authority.

Democrats have been pushing legislation to require internet companies to play by net-neutrality rules ever since the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal net neutrality last December. The federal regulations, set to be jettisoned June 11, ensured that internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon give equal access to the web, regardless of payment, data or type of service.

The Senate voted this week along party lines to approve Senate Bill 822 by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener. The proposed regulation would prevent internet service providers from blocking or slowing down internet traffic for consumers, and also prohibit them from giving priority deals to those who pay for sponsored content.

In recent years, the FCC has found that Comcast and Verizon interfered with access by giving priority to certain users in exchange for compensation.

Internet providers say this sort of regulation will drive up their costs to comply, meaning they would need to charge customers more for internet services. Plus, they note, the proposed California rules would be even more restrictive than the federal rules they aim to replace.

“We need to act at a state level to protect residents, their businesses, our democracy,” Wiener told CALmatters. “When you have internet service providers picking winners or losers on the internet … it impacts everything.”

Everything from startup businesses to brick-and-mortar companies, and from grassroots activism to telemedicine rely on accessing the web, he said, and all users could be impacted when internet providers start manipulating speed, access and prices for consumers.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Kevin De Léon, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced a similar bill that is currently in the Assembly. De Léon’s bill aims to adopt the key parts of neutrality rules established by the federal government in 2015.

Since the FCC repeal, 28 states, including New Jersey and Vermont, have introduced legislation to protect net neutrality, according to a legislative analysis. But Wiener says his bill is more comprehensive than some others by writing rules beyond that of the federal order established three years ago. For instance, it prohibits internet providers from engaging in zero rating—the practice of incentivizing users to use their products rather than their competitors’ in exchange for free data. It would put the state attorney general in charge of enforcing these rules at an annual cost of $1.8 million.

Supporters of net neutrality argue that consumers should be free to choose and access websites as they want, without interference from a handful of internet providers. They also contend that creating different tiers of service would further the digital divide between those can and cannot afford access to the web.

The bill has broad support from labor groups and companies that rely on the internet. Because 87 percent of rural Americans have one or no option for high-speed internet, removing net-neutrality protections would hurt innovation, small businesses and consumers, said the Internet Association, an organization representing members like Amazon and Netflix.

“We use apps to find marches and to meet other activists, to learn about candidates, and to find a movement where we feel represented,” the California Labor Federation said in a statement. “All of this depends upon unfiltered access to the information we seek. That is all this bill will provide.”

The gatekeepers, on the other hand, don’t want more regulation on their businesses. Moreover, internet-service providers and other opponents say a California net neutrality bill would add to their costs of operating in the state. And because it is costlier to provide service in rural areas, the companies say this regulation would discourage broadband investment in those areas.

“Given that providers have finite budgets, and rural areas are generally the most expensive in which to deploy broadband with challenging payback economics, increased regulatory expenditures necessarily drain the capital available for rural broadband deployment,” Frontier Communications wrote in an opposition letter.

Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill insisted that it would increase the costs on internet providers, who would then simply pass those extra costs on to their California customers. Sen. Patricia Bates, a Laguna Niguel Republican, said the debate for net neutrality should take place at the federal level—not here.

“Internet providers are already held legally accountable by the California attorney general and federal government. Ultimately, all this bill will succeed in doing is opening up our state to legal challenges and costly litigation, which we know is coming if the bill is passed,” Bates said.

If the bill makes it out of the Assembly and becomes law, internet-service providers will have to obey these regulations if they want to operate in the state. But they’re unlikely to go down without a fight.

Said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat who voted for the bill: “We know the second this thing passes, all the various players ... are going to litigate it.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Since 2007, the California Legislature has worked to encourage the development of telephone and Internet access through the California Advanced Services Fund. The fund provides financial assistance to both large telecommunications companies—including Frontier, AT&T, Charter and Cox—and independent broadband projects driven by community organizations that partner with smaller Internet service providers.

Thanks in part to the fund, the Legislature has grown closer to its goal of deploying broadband Internet service to 98 percent of Californians by 2017. But as the end of 2017 drew closer, many California legislators wanted to update the broadband-support program. The result: AB 1665, aka the Internet for All Now Act, which was authored by eastern Coachella Valley Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.

After overwhelming approval in both houses, the bill now sits on the governor’s desk, as of this writing.

“We know that having broadband Internet access improves the state’s economy, enhances educational opportunities, and benefits public safety, (as well as) our medical field and patient care,” Garcia said during a recent phone interview. “Even in the Coachella Valley, civic participation requires a connection to the Internet now. So this law supports a program that invests in and ensures that the infrastructure is in place for the purpose of allowing carriers to connect all these homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, clinics and public safety services in remote areas, allowing them to communicate. It’s vital to what we all do on a daily basis.”

Garcia said the Legislature set the 98 percent connectivity goal about a decade ago. “We have now gotten to about 94 percent or so, and that last (unconnected) percentage happens to be in mostly underdeveloped areas like the eastern Coachella Valley, Imperial County and other rural parts of the state. So that’s what this program will do.”

However, the bill did not make it to the governor’s desk without controversy.

Stephen Blum is an executive team member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, a California Public Utilities Commission-funded group engaged in broadband planning and development in the state, He’s also the president of Tellus Venture Associates, his own broadband-development consulting agency. He is not fan of the Internet for All Now Act version that made it to the governor’s desk.

“There have been attempts in the last legislative session and the two previous sessions to put more money into the (CASF) fund, more or less keeping the program as it was,” Blum said. “This year, things changed. The incumbents (large corporate ISPs) including AT&T, Frontier and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association jumped in and said, ‘We want the bill to be X, Y and Z.’ … Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia took it and started adding language that reflected the desires of these cable and telephone company incumbents.

“The bill went through three revisions, and each time, more perks were added for the incumbents. So as it’s written now, AB 1665 is going to put $300 million into a CASF infrastructure grant account and make it virtually impossible for independent projects to be funded. Essentially, then, it becomes a fund for AT&T and Frontier to use at their discretion.”

Blum said some of the changes made to the act baffled him.

“One of the things this bill does that boggles my mind is it lowers California’s broadband speed levels—and it’s a significant change,” he said. “Right now, an area is fundable if there’s no existing service that provides 6 mbps (megabits per second) download and 1.5 mbps upload speeds. That’s the standard. This bill changes it to 1 mbps up. Now, that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is, because the difference between 1.5 or 1 mbps up is the difference between 1990 DSL systems and contemporary copper system architecture and electronics. You can take a 1990 DSL system, do relatively minimal upgrades to it, and reach the 6 down, 1 up speed standard required. You can’t get 6 down, 1.5 up without going in and doing substantial work. That’s the change that AT&T and Frontier pushed very hard for, because that allows them to do minimal upgrades in rural areas to meet their obligations. Now they’re going to have to invest even less money—because the state will pay for it.

“If you’re in an area that falls under the CASF umbrella … you’re looking at a future where you’re going to have service somewhere in the 6 to 10 mbps download range, and 1 mbps upload range, and that’s not going to change for 10 to 20 years, because once this stuff is in, there’s no point in upgrading it.”

Garcia defended the changes made to the bill.

“There are places throughout the state that still have absolutely no Internet service whatsoever,” Garcia said. “The intention of the bill is to get people connected. The debate was: Why would we allow for certain areas that are already connected to increase their speed capacity? We laid out a goal, through a bipartisan effort of Republicans and Democrats from both rural and urban parts of the state, to make sure that the primary focus of this legislation was to serve the unserved populations. We had people push back, saying that we should be trying to get higher network speeds in places that already had connectivity, and we wrestled with that. What we decided is that we could (try for higher network speeds) after we connect everybody to some service in the areas still having no service. So, modifications to the bill were made where we were not able to appease everyone, but get enough support to move the bill forward.”

Another controversial aspect of the bill: For “last mile” projects that connect established “mid-mile” broadband pipelines to end users like homes, hospitals or businesses, those end users will have to participate financially in the funding of their access. Is that reasonable or fair when the target population is disadvantaged?

“The thought was that there should be some investment, or ‘skin in the game,’ on everyone’s part in order to be considered for access to CASF grants, and ultimately be connected,” Garcia responded.

The Independent asked whether there is some sort of means test built into the bill in order for disadvantaged end users to obtain financial support via the CASF.

“There is a means test through the CPUC,” Garcia said. “There was some confusion that this bill was attempting to just give people free Internet access—that it was like a welfare-type of program where if you signed up, you got free Internet. That’s nowhere near the real case. We’re talking about infrastructure being developed, and that makes it that much more accessible for people to connect to some type of broadband service.”

Blum said when we spoke that he was hopeful the legislation was not a done deal.

“When it gets to the governor, I think there’s a conversation to be had at that point,” he said. “We think that’s where the final decision will get made, and we feel that’s still an open question.”

Published in Local Issues

The Coachella Valley Unified School District is doing its best to keep the East Valley connected.

The district—which encompasses 21 schools at the eastern end of the valley from Indio to the Salton Sea—recently announced that the school board had approved the installation of wireless Internet routers on all 100 buses in the district’s fleet. The decision came after a successful pilot program, which began eight months before, with the implementation of Wi-Fi connectivity on three buses.

Also approved was the installation of solar panels on 10 buses in order to extend the routers’ battery life so they can become mobile wireless “hotspots” that will be parked overnight in communities where no wireless access currently exists.

Superintendent Dr. Darryl Adams sees this strategy as part of the core service the school district must provide to its students.

“You know every school district eventually is going to have to ensure that students have (continuous Internet) access,” Dr. Adams said.

This innovative program grew out of brainstorming sessions involving Dr. Adams and his administrative team.

“We have a great team working to ensure that our students have Internet access,” Dr. Adams said. “One of the things that I thought of was that we have all these buses, so why can’t we put a router on a bus? That would allow us to park the buses overnight in communities where there was no access. Also, students would be able to connect on the way to school, while on field trips or going to athletic events. So, sometimes when I come up with these crazy ideas, the team will look at you and say, ‘There, he’s lost it again.’ But this time, they said, ‘No. Let’s listen to this. Let’s see if we can do it.’ And, as it turned out, we could actually do it.”

The total first-year cost of the initiative is projected to be $232,065. That includes all hardware, software, installation and connectivity charges. The funding will come solely from the CVUSD budget.

How did the administrative team demonstrate the pilot program’s success to the board? “Because the tech is so new, and the transition into it is new, there’s not a lot of quantifiable data available,” Adams said. “But we looked at the qualitative data through satisfaction surveys and talking to students, and talking to parents, and we got a lot of positives.

“Students have been coming over to the district offices and sitting in the parking lot to connect, or they were going to their school sites and sitting out there to connect. So we knew there had to be a better way.”

A significant part of that “better way” is the mobile-hotspot feature of this program. CVUSD director of technology Michelle Murphy saw the demand very clearly.

“We visited trailer parks and talked to residents, and we found the need to be even greater than we thought,” Murphy said. “They had tried other services that had promised them low fees for connectivity, and they didn’t receive the service that they’d been promised.”

She anticipates that all of the buses will be Wi-Fi operational by Christmas break of 2015.

The new mobile Wi-Fi access is the latest development in the student-connectivity effort that began with the passing of Measure X in CVUSD territory back in 2012. With 67 percent of voters approving, that bond earmarked $42 million to be made available to the school district in segments. The first phase of the program began in 2013 and utilized $20 million to build Wi-Fi connectivity into each school campus, and purchase an iPad for every one of the approximately 19,000 students in the district.

“We plan to refresh (our students’ iPads) every two years to keep up with the changes in technology,” stated Dr. Adams. “We’ll probably use about $5 million for that refreshing program, and that leaves us $15 million. So, we should get to 2021-2022 with this money. And we’re hoping that federal and state governments by that time will give the school districts that money—just like they used to give us textbook money, we’re hoping that they’ll be giving us tech money now to ensure that our students remain connected. Because if they’re not, then the U.S. will be at a disadvantage, since other countries are doing this already.”

Published in Local Issues